Andy Duke, a spokesman for Mount Vernon Self Storage, is quick with an answer when asked who designed the strangely familiar, yet startling-looking structure at 1621 Huguenot Road in Midlothian: “George Washington,” he says matter-of-factly.
Who could argue?
With its colonnade of colossal, square columns and the cupola capping the roof, the place does look like Mount Vernon, the heavily-visited home of our first, first family on the Potomac River in Fairfax County.
“We copied the river fa‡ade,” Duke says. “We took pictures to determine the length and height.” Adding to the illusion of verity to the real thing is the curved breezeway that sweeps toward the back of the property on the right.
If one moves around the building, it becomes clear that this is merely a false front. What looks like a two-story building is actually three stories. And the place is huge: 150,000 square feet under roof.
The building was designed by Herman Menze of Menze Buildings of Tempe, Ariz., which specializes in moving and storage facilities.
The inspiration for the fa‡ade was a response to Chesterfield County’s stipulation that a colonial front was required if the storage company stood any chance of getting the site rezoned for business in an otherwise residential neighborhood.
“They wouldn’t accept anything unless it was colonial,” Duke says. “And we thought, the most colonial thing in America is Mount Vernon.”
He says business is good.
Those traveling along Hull Street or Belt Boulevard might brake and suffer whiplash when they pass Weatherford Memorial Baptist Church. Here in South Richmond, not Albemarle County, rising above the snarl of a major suburban crossroads is an overscaled replica of Monticello, Jefferson’s beloved plantation. But wait, there is a cross planted firmly at the peak of the front pediment.
And why is the spirit of Jefferson being invoked at a Baptist church? Wasn’t Jefferson a deist? (A line of thought, highly popular in the 18th century, that while God set up the universe and natural laws, the almighty took no further part in its functioning).
Weatherford Memorial is an architectural tribute to Jefferson for his role in establishing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This 1786 Virginia legislation stipulated that worship — as well as freedom from worship — was up to the individual.
Baptists had previously had it rough. John Weatherford, a popular 18th-century Chesterfield County preacher, was arrested and repeatedly imprisoned for preaching without a license from the state church of Virginia.
Founded in 1907, this Baptist congregation moved to this site near the McGuire Veterans Affairs Hospital in 1953. (Southside Plaza, one of Richmond’s first shopping centers would open three years later across the street.) The Monticello-inspired building was completed in 1972. Church literature calls it “A reminder of the freedom we enjoy as Baptists and as Americans.”
There’s a decidedly more subtle tribute than Richmond’s Mount Vernon and Monticello lookalikes. It is a grand house on a high bluff above the James River on Rothesay Circle in the West End that bears an amazing likeness to the Executive Mansion in Capitol Square. (The home of Virginia’s governors since 1813 was designed by a Boston architect, Alexander Parris, famous also for iconic houses on Beacon Hill.)
The West End mansion was constructed by Samuel and Doreen FitzGerald Bemiss in 1940. “It was the last thing built in Richmond before the war — they started rationing building materials,” says FitzGerald Bemiss, the son of the home’s builder. He recalls when his family moved from the 1800 block of Monument Avenue — where he “could look eyeball-to-eyeball with Lee’s Traveller from the third floor” — to the suburbs.
Bemiss says that isn’t aware that his family’s former home is a body double for the governor’s house.
“I don’t think he copied the Governor’s Mansion at all, or anything else,” he says of his father’s intentions. “But he liked the tradition of the Greek Revival, places like 15 South Fifth Street (the Barret House, current home of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects).”
Bemiss says that Richmond architect Louis Ballou (of the firm Ballou & Justice and the architect of Richmond’s City Hall in the 1960s) worked with his father on the house.
“Ballou was a good man and put up with my father who had a romantic notion of what he wanted,” Bemiss says. “He told Louis, and Louis put it together. The house conveyed something that was gracious to his friends and his guests.”
Samuel Bemiss, a prominent businessman and civic leader, served as president of the Virginia Historical Society and worked with the Library of Virginia and the Atlantic Rural Exposition (which presents the State Fair).
From all reports, the interior of the former Bemiss home has little in common with the floor plan of the Executive Mansion.
FitzGerald Bemiss says the house was built before air conditioning and was oriented to a series of terraces to make summer in the city more pleasant.
“Gillette was involved in it,” says Bemiss, referring to Charles Gillette, a landscape architect who was highly popular throughout the first half of the 20th century in high-stepping society — working on both residential and corporate landscaping projects here. [Gillette’s work can be seen during Garden Week: See Home Front.]
“He and my mother had lots of discussions,” he says. “The circle in the front drive, and the poplar trees in front were inevitable.”
Both a circular drive and poplar trees mark the front of the Executive Mansion, whose grounds were also designed by Gillette.
It’s one of the ironies of Richmond architecture that the Home for Needy Confederate Women is a scaled-down version of the federal White House. By what hoax did the widows of Confederate soldiers come to reside in a place that looked like Abe Lincoln’s official residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?
Built in 1930, the building lost the last of its resident ladies in 1989. The building now houses the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Center for Education and Outreach.
The building was one of a number of other structures that constituted the Old Soldiers’ Home of R.E. Lee Camp No. 1 of the United Confederate Veterans. It occupied the block bounded by Boulevard, Grove, Sheppard and Kensington.
The architect for the building was Merrill C. Lee of the firm of Lee, Smith and Van Dervoort. The building is built of glorious limestone, a material and color not unlike what lies under the actual White House’s coats of white paint (it has been painted repeatedly an uninteresting shade of white ever since it was singed by the British during the War of 1812).
How Merrill Lee came to bring a White House in miniature to a Confederate Valhalla, however, remains a mystery.
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